Monday, December 29, 2008

Time Capsule 2008

These are the things we often buy over at our household. I thought it would be fun to keep a record of prices and how things look today. I did a smilar time capsule in 2007 (see it here)

On the whole, it cheaper to drive than a year before (gas is down by almost a $1.50 since last year), but more expensive to get that cup of coffee on the road, costs more to mail a letter and read the newspaper, but less to eat healthy- organic stuff seems to be more affordable. How are prices in your part of the world?

Cheerios: $4.99(18oz)
Juice: $7.49/gal (Tropicana Orange)
Oatmeal: $4.99/42 oz, (Quaker Oats)

Milk: $5.79/gal (organic), $3.75/gal (regular)

Bread: $3.29 (Organic), $1.99(Wonderbread)
Pasta: $1.25/lb
Rice: $2.39/lb (Tilda Basmati)

Sugar: $0.53/lb
Salt: $0.69 (26 oz)
Oil: $3.74/quart (Canola)

Potatoes: $0.79/lb (regular), $0.99/lb (organic)
Apples: $1.16/lb(regular), $1.99/lb(organic)
Spinach : $1.69(regular), 2.69(organic)

Chicken: $4.99/lb
Salmon: $9.99/lb

The Washington Post: $0.50
U.S. First Class Stamp: $0.42
Cup of Coffee: $0.80
Gas: $1.58/gal (87 octane), $1.83/gal(93 octane)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Secularly

“Don’t forget the true meaning of Christmas.” I head someone admonish her companion in the store a few days ago. I winced. And looked around guiltily as if that someone was pointing a finger at me. Every year, unfailingly, I hear some one go on and on about the true meaning of Christmas, how it has been commercialized, how it is just about the gifts and food and this year, the inevitable – how the recession will bring back the true meaning of Christmas. Every time I hear this, I wince and gulp. Because, you know, Mea Culpa. I am probably the one of many contributing to the whole “commercial” aspect of Christmas. Gifts, Santa, Tree. The whole shindig. I am not a Christian. Let alone a practicing Christian. But every year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I send BigGeek down to our crawl space to get out the tree and the ornaments. (The lights are already out for Diwali and they stay on until the New Year). My silk tree is moved from its year-long corner, the Christmas Tree is set up. Trimmed with lights and ornaments. A tree skirt with a giant Santa and Ho-ho-ho written in very large letters spread out under it. And the gift or two, for Chip placed under it. Cookies are baked. Wine is mulled. Cinnamon scented candles lit. And we all look forward to enjoying some nice family time. With lots of food of course. A very secular Christmas. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?

But it is what it is. Our Christmas has no religious undertones whatsoever. I love the nativity scene our neighbors put out (and they hadn’t this year until this morning and I wondered is something untoward had happened there). I love listening to the carols and hymns. And the uber-cheesey Christmassy pop songs blaring out on the radio and in the malls. I love how every house (well almost every) puts icicle lights and wreaths and the whole dull, gray winterscape suddenly springs to life. I love the mall crowds (I am probably the only person in the entire world to say so), although this year, they have been abysmally thin. I love the Starbucks specials (peppermint mocha, mmmm) and the new gizmos that come out during this time of the year. Bulk of my gift shopping happens at Diwali and I sorely miss the buzz of the festive season then.

Does this mean that I am truly stealing Christmas from its true meaning? Being a Hindu, immigrant Grinch of sorts? Probably. But Probably not. This is also a time for us, to reflect on the year, so see how we traveled through it, so to speak. It is also a time for us to give to the many charities we support. Our local volunteer firefighters association, Wikipedia, the National Children’s Leukemia foundation, Smithsonian. It is a time to cherish our families and spend this day in their warmth. Sleeping late, eating a lazy breakfast and staying in.

A few days ago, as I picked Chip from his school, we met his principal on our way out and she asked Chip if he had a good day. Chip nodded and said, “I was a good boy today Miss F, because if I am not good, Santa is not bringing me any gifts!” Miss F. was surprised. “You celebrate everything.” She said to me. I just nodded. A big part of our Christmas celebration, is also that I don’t want Chip to be left out. If we lived in the middle-east, I would have celebrated Eid, if we lived in China, I would have celebrated the Chinese New Year. All with gusto. We live in the US and we celebrate its biggest holidays. What’s not to celebrate? And of course it also ensures that Chip will never be lost, when his friends at school ask him the inevitable post-holiday question, “What did you get for Christmas?”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

All Dolled Up

A few days (could be weeks) ago, I had a spirited debate with CeeKay about gender identities. While I can’t quite give a blow-by-blow account of the discussion, I was certainly arguing for this point. That gender identity is not just a social construct. Genes play a role too. Boys have one whole chromosome different than girls. It makes them more susceptible to autism and learning disorders, some types of cancer, it is not a big surprise that it plays a role in the way we think and act. We agreed to disagree in the end and that was that.

Imagine the irony this weekend then. We had been invited to a birthday party. Lots of our friends were invited too. With their kids, obviously. Girls and boys. It was a fun party. The kids ran and played with each other. And ate the delicious food. Suddenly, a friend exclaimed. “What is Chip doing?” I looked up in alarm. There was Chip, holding a cute baby doll in his lap, feeding her with the toy bottle and singing a song. To me, it was a beautiful sight. “What do you mean? He is playing with the doll.” I told our friend. “Don’t encourage these things, I am getting him a nerf gun. Dolls?” “What’s wrong with dolls? He likes playing with dolls. I don’t mind at all.” The conversation was left at that.

A couple of hours later, as guests dwindled somewhat and everybody relaxed with a cup of tea, the topic came up again. Because, well, Chip had found the doll again and was playing with it. “What are you calling her?” I asked Chip. “Dottie, don’t encourage him.” The friend again cautioned me. I was getting riled. “Why not?” There was some snickering that could have only meant this. “Because he will turn gay? I don’t mind if he grows up to be gay.” I don’t think boys turn gay because they play with dolls. Girls certainly don’t turn gay because they play with cars. “He is three, let him be. What is the big deal?” “Give him action figures.” Someone suggested. “He can play with action figures and he can play with dolls. I said. “In fact I should buy him a doll” “Some one record this.” Someone said. “We’ll play it back to Chip when he is older.” “You know what” I was trying hard to not let my irritation show, “His wife will thank me. Because it will bring out his inner sentimental self.” “But he will curse you for 25 years before that.”, our friend laughed. I gave up. It’s all imaginative play, isn’t it? Really, what is the big deal? “What if he turns into a cross dresser?” someone asked again. “Who knows?” I said “In a couple of generations, it would be acceptable for boys to wear skirts. A century ago, pant-wearing women were frowned upon.” Another friend was amazed at me. “I really didn’t think you were this sort of a person.” Whatever that meant. “I am surprised” she said. “Why, won’t you let your son play with a doll?” I asked. She hesitated. “I won’t encourage it.”

That seems to be the common sentiment. Ignore boys playing dolls. Do not encourage doll-playing. If they seem to be too drawn towards dolls, quietly buy them nerf guns or other macho toys. What load of bull-x. Tell me, would you buy your son a doll? Because I will and should have. To nurture is an emotion that occurs naturally in boys and girls.. So what is the harm if they express that sentiment when they are children? Boys grow up to be loving fathers, you know. Compared to earlier generations, men today are much more hands-on as fathers, much more nurturing. As the need (and thus the expression) for violence has declined in the past several generations, in the developed countries at least, men (and boys) have found their nurturing side. And that’s a good thing. It does not make then sissies. In cultures that encourage violent toys, the rate of violence is much, much more than cultures that that are more accepting of gender-role-reversals. Daddies opting to stay at home to raise kids, instead of mommy being default are on the rise. If the wife makes twice the money than her husband, what else would be logical, for a family, tell me?

But for some it’s hard to be accepting of these changes, I suppose. Big and small. Including boys playing (or rather encouraged to play with dolls). I wonder what it is they fear.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An Absolute Scandal

In the early 1990s, about 1,500 (out of 34,000) Lloyds members (called Names) went bankrupt trying to pay asbestosis claims for companies that Lloyds insured. An Absolute Scandal is based on that event and takes a look at the lives of those affected by this unlimited, personal liability. Wealthy, upper-crust folks, find themselves being slowly stripped of their wealth as losses mount and they struggle, at first to keep appearances, then to maintain their lavish lifestyles and then in the end to just survive.

What worked for me
The English-English. The very Brit language was charming. I read the whole book in a faux-British accent (yes, it was exhausting) and that was fun. Almost like role playing.

What did not work for me
Pretty much everything else. I had never heard of Penny Vincenzi until I picked up this book. It is very long. 500+ pages. And frankly the subject matter does not warrant that. It takes many unwanted twists and turns that add nothing to the plot or to the characters. The plot itself is quite weak. Also the sheer number of characters are hard to keep track of. And a lot of them are romantically involved with people they are not supposed to. Too many tangled relationships to keep track off. I found myself skipping several pages and found it did not really affect the story, or rather my understanding of the story in anyway. The back cover has some review excerpts and I agree with the one that says, it is a soap. Yes, this is a soap in print. It really told me nothing about how Lloyds operates, it gave me a general, vague-ish idea about the ‘Names’ and syndicates but nothing more, really. Perhaps Vincenzi expects the reader she is targeting to know innards of Lloyds operations, but given the amount of fluff in this book, I doubt if that is the readership she is really trying to attract. I think someone like Grisham would have done true justice to the subject matter. There absolutely was no research in this book – it feels like Vincenzi just read the wiki page about Lloyds and tried to incorporate some of that information across 500+ pages. In the end, I did not understand what the book wanted to be. A whodunit? A romance novel? A historical fiction of sorts?

Hot or drop
I think drop. If you are looking for a romance novel, I am sure there are others that have more to offer than this mish-mash.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I haven’t left the building. Had only been hiding, not knowing what to really say or write. I saw the Mumbai attacks on TV; was horrified and tongue tied. What could I possibly say here on this small blog without really trivializing the whole sordid deed in some way, I thought. I am no public policy pundit or a security expert or a journalist. What could I possibly say that would affect the outcome of what followed? I could not sleep for a few nights. I was jittery, perplexed, trying to internalize the whole affair through snippets of conflicting information from news sources and family back in Mumbai. Too many questions, too few answers. Too many what ifs. Too many buts. Too many too manys.

This is a winter of wrath. No doubt. Wrath of the terrorists and the wrath against them. Wrath against the blasé Indian intelligence and the flaccid politicians. Wrath against the banks of Wall Street, wrath against the foolish homeowners who bought more than they could possibly afford. Wrath against the car industry, wrath against the lost jobs. And exasperation. Like gray sky outside that casts its dreary glow everywhere, the attack, the downturn has cast a dull, depressing shadow everywhere. Holidays are almost here, but they seem so far away. The icicle lights not as bright, the holiday songs jaded and forced. Uncertainty hangs in the air like the sword of Damocles. Fear lurks around the corner, waiting to pounce on its newest, unsuspecting prey. Like the milky fog I see rising from the river I must cross twice each day, the vagueness of our times veil what lies ahead. And I wait with millions others around me wondering what I can do to lift it and ask if there is a bend ahead somewhere towards sunnier times.